More cases of cervical cancer predicted
The number of young women receiving first smear tests has almost halved during Covid, with experts fearing a spike in preventable cervical cancer among a new generation of wāhine Māori and Pasifika, unless immediate steps are taken. ‘‘We know we have a problem with increasing cervical cancer in that younger group,’’ says Professor Bev Lawton, the director of the Centre for Women’s Health Research Te Tatai Hauora O Hine. ‘‘Screening rates were already dropping and Covid has made a huge difference. We need to make it accessible, it needs to be free and we just need to put our foot on the pedal.’’ Overall, about 30,000 fewer smear tests were done in the year to October 2020 alone, with figures taking another dive during the nationwide lockdown in August this year. A nationwide backlog of overdue smear tests has prompted the Ministry of Health to dish out emergency funding to district health boards to urgently find and screen Māori and Pasifika women and girls, who research shows are already more than twice as likely to die from cervical cancer than non-Māori. Internationally, experts have warned even small blips in screening coverage can lead to more cervical cancer, especially in minority ethnic groups. The decline in screening comes alongside a drop in HPV vaccinations in year 8 pupils this year. Those working on the front line in Aotearoa say a new HPV self-test due for roll-out in 2023 should be fast-tracked, or offered to at least high-priority women now. The HPV self-test, which can be administered at home by the woman herself or a doctor, would allow screening to continue during a pandemic, Lawton says. Lawton and her colleagues are about to start an implementation trial of HPV self-testing with several thousand women in Northland. Lawton says she is trying to shoehorn as many women as possible into it, to make up for those missing out. Ministry of Health data analysed by Stuff show cervical screening was impacted heavily by the first Covid lockdown in March last year. It picked up slightly in May but has not returned to pre-Covid levels. First smear tests, most common in women aged 25-30, have dropped by 46 per cent since September 2020. About 1500 in total have been administered so far this year.